Making Memories a Moon(cake) Away

Kelly Lu ’23 (Arts Editor, 142nd Board) in Editorials | September 23, 2022

Last week was the Mid-Autumn Festival. 
Mid-Autumn Festival, or as I’ve called it my entire life, 中秋节, is a Chinese holiday that brings families together under the fullest moon of the year. Simply saying the name of the holiday conjures an image of a family seated under a brilliant sky, feasting at a circular table, with crab, duck, and other Chinese delicacies spinning around a Lazy Susan. 
Prior to throwing myself into the boarding school lifestyle, I loved watching Mid-Autumn Festival celebrations unfold every year. I always pointed out the bright red lanterns floating across every ceiling in Hong Kong, or the mooncakes in the grocery aisles. I’d observe as parents squatted down next to curious children to explain the myths behind the lunar fascination––from the tragic romance of Chang’e separated from her lover to the happy tale of the Moon Rabbit. And as the day turned into the night, I always loved watching the entire city come to life from my balcony: families hurrying back home to begin preparing meals, windows down the street lighting up to frame laughing faces, and people clinking cups of wine as they downed mooncake after mooncake. 
Since arriving in the U.S. five years ago, however, I’ve left behind almost every one of these festival traditions. Last week, instead of celebrating with loved ones, I had Saturday classes. Instead of waking up to my family already seated around the table, I woke up to an empty dorm room. Instead of digging into rows of home-cooked Chinese food, I had a sandwich at Abbott. Instead of cooking and eating with my family members, I sent a quick celebratory text before hunching over my computer to write an essay. Instead of cutting up a lotus mooncake and sharing it with my siblings, I stuffed a small custard mooncake into my mouth as I hurriedly finished my physics homework. In fact, while writing this editorial, I had to search “Mid-Autumn Festival” on Wikipedia to remember what life was like five years ago. 
I’ve become numb to missing out on what used to be one of the most important holidays to me. Lunar New Year? Just another Asian-themed Irwin dinner. Mid-Autumn Festival? Perhaps if I’m lucky, a day student friend will gift me some Chinese snacks. Less-celebrated holidays that I used to anticipate, like Dragon Boat Festival or Qingming Day, no longer matter to me. Even when I know I’m slowly losing what matters to me, I sometimes cannot get myself to even care.
But I also know that for many new international students without my years of experience, relinquishing old traditions isn’t as easy. Students from all over the world come to humble Lawrenceville, New Jersey, in hopes of a better education than the one they had back home; yet the opportunity to sit around the Harkness table comes at the steep cost of one’s relationship with their home culture. I’ve seen friends in tears while on calls with old friends because they miss seeing holiday decorations that don’t exist in America; I know classmates who haven’t returned home in months, even years, due to harsh Covid quarantine rules. Even those who have been boarders for years still feel pangs of nostalgia when they celebrate a holiday or  family tradition by themselves. Not everyone is as “numb” or “used to” forgoing cultural celebrations as I am, and not everyone should be.
Assimilation here at boarding school seems like the easy answer to forget all your “missing out on home” sorrows; after all, when your Lawrenceville identity starts to replace your cultural one, it feels like you’re stepping into a more progressive stage in life rather than abandoning what’s most important to you. You start to let holidays from home slip out of your mind then cover for your mistakes using the excuse of carelessness, you start to only order takeout from Panera or Shake Shack instead of a nearby cultural restaurant in the name of convenience rather than admit you’re distancing yourself from your identity, and you start to prefer watching Gilmore Girls or Friends and hate watching TV shows in your native language because you think foreign media is “cringe.”
After all, when all you’ve ever known becomes everything you think you shouldn’t be, letting go of things held dear your entire life feels like the best option.
Trust me, as a veteran international student, I know it’s hard. 
Despite how tempting assimilation feels, don’t forget what you’re losing. Don’t forget your childish amazement when your parents first explained why cultural celebrations were the way they were––maybe you became entranced by the folk songs or the local dancing, maybe the decorations people would put up annually astounded you, maybe you were overly excited about the delicious foods you only ate during special holidays. 
Don’t forget the way your parents used to cradle you and whisper cultural mythologies as you fell asleep; think about the amazement of walking into a classroom to see an explosion of bright red your teacher put up in preparation for the Lunar New Year; remember the first time you joined your family’s dumpling-making days and how your grandparents held your small hand in their calloused ones to guide your folding motions. Remember where you came from, even when it’s easy to get lost in this foreign world. 
To all the new international students and returning ones who still aren’t used to being away from home, I hope it gets better for you soon. One day, you’ll find Lawrenceville to be your “home away from home,” a safe haven for you despite only knowing it for a little while. More importantly, however, I hope you don’t throw away your past. Continue your family traditions with your friends, lean on other international students by going to monthly hotpot trips together, or form a familiar community by joining an affinity group on campus.
While I think I might’ve missed out on last week’s Mid-Autumn Festival, I’ll find a way to connect with other international students and celebrate it––perhaps in even grander ways than back in Hong Kong––next year.